Mark Hooper
Interview with: Mark Hooper (MH)
Occupation: Senior Chemist, Moreton Sugar Mill
Interviewer: Gary McKay (GM)
Location of Interview: Moreton Mill, Nambour
Date of Interview: 27 August 2003

Mark Hooper started working at the Moreton Sugar Mill in the laboratory as a trainee chemist, in 1968, doing sugar analysis, when he was 17 years old. His father, grandfather and uncle had all been cane growers, as had several of his father’s cousins. Mark has worked his way through the Mill as a sugar analyst, shift analyst, shift chemist, assistant chief chemist to being in charge of the laboratory and the analysis processes today. He has many other hats he wears at the Mill, including environmental officer, relieving purchasing officer, program supervisor for the cane analysis programme, the first aid training coordinator and, when he is not busy, he is a mentor for school and industry trainees. After having worked for many different owners of the Mill, and still retaining a job, he believes survival is his greatest asset. At 50 years of age, Mark is going to be looking for a job if the Mill closes, and while he is not overly confident, he remains positive.


Audio file

Mark Hooper oral history [MP3 132MB]



GM This is a recording of an interview with Mark Hooper, Senior Chemist, Moreton Mill Bundaberg Sugar, Nambour, recorded on Wednesday 27 August 2003, by Gary McKay for the Maroochy Library’s Project The Last Crush.

Mark firstly thanks very much for taking part in this Project. Could you tell us when and how you got into the sugar industry?

MH I started in the sugar industry in 1968. My introduction to that was that my father was growing cane at the time. I got introduced to the chemistry stream through a Rotary careers’ night that was held at the old Civic Hall (Nambour) back in 1967. Then I consequently signed up for a Certificate in Sugar Chemistry, which was then held in Mackay TAFE, and as a young lad, I had to travel to Mackay and do four years - essentially slack seasons of study - and then work in the Sugar Mill here in Nambour in the crushing season to gain experience. It was interesting and I feel privileged because I was interested in maths and science and I was more or less able to stay at home while I was learning and working, so to speak.

GM How old were you when you started?

MH Fifteen.

GM So you left home at Year 10? So you then worked four years in the crushing season here and did four years worth of study? Then you came back here?

MH Yes. I’ve been here ever since.

GM You’ve got a family history in the area too, haven’t you?

MH That’s correct. My father was a supplier of cane to this sugar mill and he only retired from it a couple of years ago, at about 80. I had an uncle who is deceased, and he supplied cane for a period of time. Even my grandfather, he supplied cane I believe before the War. I have also got cousins who have owned cane farms in the district, also near where my father had his cane farm. I just remembered too the other day that I had one of Dad’s cousins used to be a High Grade Fugaller here at the Sugar Mill. He has since left, quite some years ago.

GM What did you say that job was?

MH High Grade Fugalman. They operator machines like a centrifugal machine, just like a washing machine.

GM That’s where they spin the stuff around and get all the molasses off and you’re left with the sugar crystals?

MH That’s right.

GM It’s like a big spin dryer isn’t it?

MH That’s right. So that is part of the history. Also a lot of the people that I went to school with, well a few of them, are still working here at the Mill.

GM Your father’s farm supplied the Moreton Mill?

MH It did. But now it (the farm) has been bought by Queensland Transport, and they are going to put a four-lane road through it some day they think.

GM You started here in 1968. Just take us through the sort of things that you did during your time here at the Mill.

MH When I started I was what you call a junior chemist on day work, which was just doing basic stuff like analysing juices and boiler waters, drain waters, sweet waters and things like that. In those days things were very manual – there were no computers. I graduated to a sugar analyst for a couple of years, analysing the sugar product. Then one year as a shift analyst and worked on shift, analysing juices for cane payment. Then I went to a shift chemist supervisory position inside the factory, on shift, supervising the process. Then an opportunity came up for a job as an Assistant Chief Chemist and I was able to gain that in 1987, and I’d been doing that job for quite a while until the Chief Chemist retired and there was no more Chief Chemist, so I couldn’t be the Assistant Chief Chemist anymore. They call me a Process Chemist, or Senior Chemist, who is responsible now for the environment, the sugar quality and the laboratory function with respect to cane payment and various support and training roles in the factory.

GM When you say the environment, in what regard is that?

MH The Moreton Mill has what we call an environmental license and there are terms in that license that we have to adhere to and requirements of analysis of creek water and the effluent that goes out.

GM It is the air and the water and the ground that we sit on here and you have to comply with all the rules and regulations (in the environmental license)?

MH Yes. It is one of my roles to try to educate and encourage people to do that.

GM When you said before (about) analysing sugar for payment, the farmers obviously get paid on the amount, not the cane that’s crushed, but the amount of sugar that is produced. Is that right?

MH Yes. What we do, we analyse the cane for CCS, which in real terms is commercial cane sugar, and by definition it is the quantity of sugar that can be extracted in a commercially viable way at our factory that we pay for. There is more sugar in it, but that is the system that was devised many years ago by one Dr Kottman of the CSR Company around the turn of, not this century, but the last century. That has been the basis for cane payment systems right throughout the Queensland and New South Wales sugar industry since then.

GM Must be a good system because it hasn’t been changed?

MH Yes. There have been many attempts to change it, but for some good technical reasons, and when you get agreements between millers and growers in the various forms that have existed over the years, you get a political aspect of it, that either side doesn’t want to give ground that they had already gained through using this formula.

GM How many people work in the lab?

MH At the moment we have, including myself, about six people here.

GM How many of them are on shift at any one time?

MH There’s one shift chemist on each shift and we have one day chemist and then myself. We also have a workplace co-ordinator, who is an independent auditor who audits the cane payment system.

GM What comes to you to analyse?

MH It is all by agreement by a cane processing and analysis agreement. In its current form, it is agreed between the miller and the grower. It is just a spillover from the old industrial gazette days where they used to have it gazetted by Parliament, but now it is an agreement between the miller and the grower. What we do to get that CCS figure is we analyse the first expressed juice from No. 1 Mill; we do what we call brix and a pol and we tie in the fibre figure to give the CCS formula. That’s applied to the tons of cane to get tons of recoverable sugar. Through a relative cane payment system, the growers are paid accordingly.

GM When you said the No. 1 Mill, is that where they come through that first crushing, after they get tipped out of the little bins that the cane trains bring in, and they go into that thing where they get absolutely crunched?

MH Yes. The juice off this roller here. That roller only.

GM For the tape we’re looking at a sugar milling process diagram. You factor in a whole lot of things like fibre, mud and whatever.

MH We get plenty of mud. We had a few problems at the beginning of this week, and previous weeks, with mud in cane. Mud in cane ends up in the juice and the formula that was devised in the beginning of 20th century, when we had whole stick cane and clean cane supply and it seemed to work well, but as we have got mechanical harvesters, they do in wet weather put in a bit of mud. It does skew that formula one way or another.

GM I guess manual cane cutting in the past would have reduced a lot of that, wouldn’t it, because they simply would have lopped it off at the bottom and had it in neat stacks?

MH That’s right.

GM That’s the price we pay for progress.

MH That’s right. You’ve got to wear it if that’s what you want.

GM What did you call whole stick cane. What’s that?

MH That’s the stick cut off at the butt and topped, and they sent the whole stick in little two-ton cane trucks in those days, wooden trucks. It was just stacked on it and they had a big chain over the top winched down to hold it in. Then they went to mechanical harvesting of whole stick cane, and from that they went to this chopper harvesting.

GM Because it comes out in lengths of about…?

MH Twelve inches (300 mm).

GM Do all cane farms burn before harvesting?

MH Not all now. No.

GM Why do they burn it?

MH Many years ago they used to ‘cut in the leaf’ as the term is. This meant they used to cut it green, then take the trash off the cane and load it on. Then for a couple of reasons, a lot of the cane cutters in those days used to get what they called Weil’s Disease - that is the common term for it - which made them very sick. It comes from rats’ urine and so on. So to make the cane easier to burn (sic: cut), someone would slip a match in. In those days, when that happened, they’d put on what they called a burnt cane penalty. Then eventually it went to all burnt cane and they still pay that penalty. It made it easier to harvest and you got less extraneous matter of course. Now with our chopper harvesting system, these big machines can cut in the green. When you’re cutting the green, it does cost a little bit more, but they don’t have that burnt cane penalty; but also it reduces their (cut to) crush times in doing it this way by cutting in the green. That gives you a better CCS and also better processing cane.

GM Cutting ‘in the green’ means when it’s not burnt?

MH That’s right.

GM That was my next question. Does the heat from the fire affect the amount of sugar they are going to get out?

MH It can to a degree, but we have within our cane processing agreement we have to crush that cane within 24 hours of it being delivered to the Mill tramline. As soon as you burn the cane, you quickly kill it and the deterioration sets in, and when you chop it up into little lengths that gives you more places for deterioration.

GM More exposure?

MH That’s right.

GM As the Senior Chemist, tell us what you do day to day.

MH Day to day, I supervise the laboratory. I have quite a few hats and I don’t know which ones to wear sometimes. There’s the Programme Supervisor, which is supervising the cane analysis programme, which is relative to cane payment, and I’ve got to check that that is running okay. I’ve got to look at sugar quality with respect to the boiling of the sugar on the pan stage. I’m into first-aid - convenor of training requisites. It’s only a minor job, but when you stack them all together it’s a lot of hats. Then you have the Environmental Officer, that’s another one that I do. Also I am involved, as I mentioned earlier, training people. To a degree I suppose I have been a mentor for people who have done the Certificate in Sugar Milling Course and I am also a mentor for trainees, school-based trainees. I have to sit down and tick off whether they understand what they’re looking at in the factory and things like that. Also one that I feel, I strive to co-operate with people and also maintain a peaceful workplace because that is how the place ticks. The working environment helps.

GM What union do the guys in the Mill come under?

MH Mostly they come under the Australian Workers’ Union or the Metalworkers’ Union, or the Electrical Workers’ Union. In regards to agreements with the unions, they have the basic awards, but the Company runs an Enterprise Bargaining arrangement or agreement with them and that is reviewed annually or every three years, whatever the terms are. At the moment of course if all falls over at the end of the year.

GM What is your role with that? You are not a union delegate yourself?

MH No. I have been the Secretary of the EBA committee.

GM Representing management?

MH No. Just the penciller.

GM What is the important part of your job? The prime job that you have.

MH They are all important to me. Sugar quality is important, environment is important and cane payment, because they all reflect on the profitability of the Company and the capability the factory has of extracting the sugar that you pay for and the CCS formula.

GM What has been the biggest change in your area since you started at the tender age of 15? What has been the biggest change in the lab work area?

MH There’s not as many people there as used to be. The introduction of computerised databases, which has saved a lot of the bulky work so to speak in that area. Also, we had a big change last year, not last year, a couple of years ago, instead of manually measuring the brix of the juice we have a brixometer, which is a coriolis tube-based instrument which measures the brix for us. It ties that in with the computer database, along with our pol readings, and so on. It ties it all together into a database and links that to the farmers’ cane that goes across the weighbridge. That system has been a big change. In certain areas it has been good and other areas not so good.

GM Do the farmers get some sort of feedback on the productivity of their cane, besides a cheque?

MH They do get the benefit of the dollars. Under the current system with Bundaberg Sugar, they can access their particulars of their cane that has been crushed, the CCS, over the phone – a voice mail type system. It comes out of Bundaberg and they can access their data. Also the data that we get, the tons of cane, that is related to the block numbers on the various farms and so on. That eventually becomes available to the farmers, so they can work out their inputs, rather their dollar inputs, to these blocks that they put in, versus the dollars they get out of it.

GM Is there a great variance between - we take it as a Nambour area and let’s say there are districts within the area - is there a great difference in the different parts of the area we take cane from here?

MH Yes. Each year they have done what they call the productivity analysis and there is a Productivity Board, which has miller members and grower members, and they used to have an employee that used to go around and search for diseases in the cane and report on that sort of thing; do trials in conjunction with the BSES and cane CCS trials and things like that. That’s reported at the end of the year. One of the better areas I’d say would be the Maroochy River area because it always seems to come out ahead of the other areas. I couldn’t give you any specific numbers off the top of my head.

GM Some things that have happened in the past. You’ve got boiler failure. Tell us about the boiler failure.

MH Oh, yes.

GM Was this 1981?

MH It was. Yes, I was here.

GM Tell us what happened, or what was the first thing you knew when the boiler had failed?

MH Oh, well, I rolled up to work one morning and I said, ‘This shouldn’t be happening’, and I see all these long faces in the Mill, really long faces. I saw the boiler people, John Thompson Limited. They were turning up. And there were all these people doing post-mortems, so I thought it was pretty bad. Not that I had much to do with it because I was in the chemistry side, the shift supervisor then. The boiler internals collapsed due to, as I understand it, low water level in the boiler.

GM So it overheated?

MH Yes. Tubes (were shaped) like spaghetti inside the boiler.

GM Did it explode?

MH Fortunately it didn’t – it imploded.

GM So it just collapsed? That’s better than exploding if there is such a thing as being better.

MH That’s right.

GM What sort of ramifications did the collapse of the boiler have?

MH Well, we only had one boiler driving the place, and that was it. It took them - must have been three weeks - working around the clock to repair it and get it back in production. Over the ensuing years they had to progressively renew the internals of it because they couldn’t risk it running the way it was. The pipework was bent and skewed and so on.

GM We are talking about a fairly big piece of kit, aren’t we?

MH Oh yes. It wasn’t a very good event because that three weeks obviously affected the cane growing for the crops cycles and also when a thing like that happens there was a lot of burnt cane at that time left in the field. You had ‘Who was responsible for that’? What do you do about it? What happened was that the majority of it was transported by road to Maryborough sugar factory who worked some overtime to clear that cane as quickly as possible.

GM A guy would expect that if he burned his cane on Wednesday, because it is going to be cut on Friday or whatever and then crushed on Saturday, and if you’ve got no boiler…that throws it into a bit of a tailspin.

MH Yes. The Company had to come to the party with some of the freight I believe.

GM You are sending it by road up to Maryborough, but is movement by train just too slow?

MH It depends on the facilities you have. Maryborough sugar factory – their cane transport system is all road transport, so all they did was hived off some trucks down here and they kept on going until they got all the cane.

GM Would their mill own the trucks or is that a contract?

MH At the moment, right now, the Mill owns the actual trailers, but the contractors at the time owned the prime movers.

GM Because everyone says, ‘Why don’t they send the cane to Maryborough by train?’ But if it is going to sit on a wagon for two days, maybe, knowing good old Queensland Rail (no offence intended), but if it does it’s really going to suffer.

MH That’s right.

GM How many people actually work here at the Mill, all year round?

MH Well, I did a sum on that. There is 104 working now and that includes 11 staff, and it’s usually about 66% permanents and 33% seasonals, approximately. It is a mix that has developed up over the years with people who come back regularly. Some of the jobs have been permanent and when these permanent people retire, they turn it into a seasonal position.

GM It’s cheaper.

MH Yes, it is. That is part of the rationalisation I suppose.

GM Does it bump up by much when they start crushing?

MH No. It is about 60 people here on the off/slack season and you put on another 30-odd people.

GM What do they do when they are not here at the Mill – what do they do for the other six months of the year?

MH Some people work for Mr Howard. I know a lot of people, when you notice over the years, people who have come through the place and do this and that, some of them have a hobby farm. I know one guy had an avocado farm, a couple of them years ago. They work the farm in the off-season. They work shift work, you see, so they able to do extra work. Another bloke has got a cattle property. They do other things like that, and tie it in with shift work and just gives their incomes a boost I suppose.

GM But if you are a train driver? Jim Attewell said that in the slack season he used to be a navvy.

MH Jim is on a permanent job and they give them the navvying jobs fixing the line.

GM There would always be maintenance?

MH Yes. That’s what some of them do. Also, when there has been expansion on over the years some of these seasonal people who been kept on to do the labouring work and so on in respect to building or installing new equipment and so on.

GM Do you pronounce it bagasse? Bagasse loft fire. Tell us about that.

MH I heard about it. Once again my concern was the environment and so on. It was in the beginning of a 2002 season. Just before that they had the bagasse stored in the shed.

GM The bagasse is the stuff they use in the boiler?

MH That’s right.

GM This is cane stuff that’s not going to be crushed – no, it’s after it’s been crushed, isn’t it?

MH That’s right.

GM Then they use it for fuel?

MH That’s right. Sometimes you get away with storing bagasse, sometimes you don’t. On this occasion we didn’t. Spontaneous combustion. You get a bit of water in with it and a bit of air and bacteria and so on warms things up and then it just goes ‘poof!’

GM Just like sawdust sometimes?

MH Yes. Away it goes. They had to clean out the shed to get at the fire more or less. They had a bobcat in there, pouring water on it. It was a big hassle because it nearly wrecked the bagasse shed. All the heat buckled a lot of gear, burnt a lot of the conveyor wheels (belts). It was a bit of a problem just before the season started.

GM They store it for quite a while?

MH They were this time. We didn’t store any at the end of season 2002. Some sugar companies use bagasse that they store over the off-season as a fuel for their co-generation plants. It is done in other places. In those places they cover the material and keep it dry and then use it as they require it. You can get away with it.

End Side A

Star Side B

GM This is side two of a recording with Mark Hooper, Senior Chemist, Moreton Mill Bundaberg Sugar at Nambour recorded on Wednesday 27 August 2003.

You mentioned in your form something about a Christmas tree on a chimney.

MH I don’t know too much about that. That was an engineering feat.

GM We are talking about the big stack, the really big tall one, and someone put a Christmas tree...?

MH It is not a Christmas tree as in a timber tree. It was a thing they made up and sat on top of the stack and they put a PLC on it and a lot of coloured lights that flashed on and off in a cycle. That’s all I really know about it. I wasn’t in on how it got there.

GM Has the processing of sugar, they way they actually do it as per this diagram here, has that changed very much since the late ‘60s?

MH No, it hasn’t really. As in the hardware - the equipment we have - computerisation and electronics have improved our control of the processes. Sugar Research Institute which started back in the ‘50s. It is an industry-funded body in Mackay who do research on all aspects of milling and processing the cane, and a lot of that has been applied to the existing equipment to make it all more efficient and/or to increase the throughput without having to commit major capital dollars.

GM There has been a lot of talk about the production of ethanol. Is that feasible at the Mill?

MH Technically it’s feasible, but you wouldn’t have the throughput to be able to (do that here).

GM Commercially it may not be.

MH No. It all hangs on to the end price of your product. You can do it and make it out of molasses like Bundaberg Rum - that is made out of molasses - and that is the way the methylated spirits is made of molasses in Bundaberg or in Sarina where there is another distillery. There is another one at Rocky Point Sugar Mill, a small one down there South where they make that sort of thing.

GM So, it is a distillery process as opposed to a milling process isn’t it? So all the people waving their arms around really don’t know – they must be getting it confused?

MH Yes. Well, depending where you take your sugar feed stock from. Most of them have the milling set, and they take the juice from that and away they go and ferment that and so on. Other places just take the final molasses out of the factory, which is at the final boiling and they use the sugar out of that. Which is what they mostly do in Australia, use that final molasses. Once again, it is the politics of it and whether the fuel companies will let them do it.

GM Out of the Moreton Mill here, over the years, we’ve always got sugar, always got molasses, but they also used to produce something else at one stage. Was it gas or...?

MH No. From what I’ve read in the history books and what I’ve seen - and I’ve some samples of it up in the lab - they used to extract wax.

GM Do you know when they stopped that?

MH In the early ‘60s. Before I started. I guess the wax factory as it was and the competition from the petroleum industry knocked it over. The wax factory used to be where the Midway Motel is, which is not there now. It used to be located where they are putting in the new Woolworth’s development in Howard Street.

GM When I read the history book about the ‘Sweetheart of Nambour’ it seemed that it operated not too efficiently. Well, I don’t know if it was about efficiency, it was about production. It came and went, depending on whether there was a war on or not. There’d be a lot of boots with polish on them – that seemed to be what was mainly used for – a lot of boot polish. Floor polish was another.
The bulk bagging plant, which is just down the bottom there. How did that change things here at the Mill?

MH It meant they had to put some investment in. It came down from Millaquin, the plant we had. It meant that we employed a few more people and it also meant a capital investment so that we could make this direct consumption sugar there. It was essentially a value-adding thing. We essentially had to come to a food grade (standard) in that part of our operation. We have to cover tanks, get rid of the glass in the plant, change of lot of our lighting because of the nature of it; if it had glass it had to be covered and cover our conveyors. There was an arrangement in the factory where we had to reduce our particulates in our sugar and have a system of doing that properly so it would satisfy the food regulations.

GM Was it a big outlay?

MH In those days it was. It was a few million dollars, but that was built up over time. To do that on account of Bundaberg Sugars, which is another part of the Company and they have a packaging plant down in Brisbane. Prior to that, making what we call it direct consumption sugar, we used to make it for CSR Limited who had a refinery at New Farm in Brisbane. It doesn’t exist anymore, but they had a bagging plant there and they used to bag our sugar under their brand. Raw sugar as you see it in the shops.

GM I went and had a look at it, and it looks like you can do anything from about a 25-kilo bag to 1250 kilos.

MH We do 15 kg bags, 25 kg bags, and 1.25 ton.

GM That’s a lot of sugar for your table. Those big ones, where do they go?

MH Some of them go direct to the customer and others are stored down at Kunda Park down at the Coast in warehouses. They pull that out of the warehouses as and when the bagging plant in Brisbane requires it or as customers require it.

GM Really, what you are saying is that that direct consumption, you can do and pick up your little 15-kilo bag on the supermarket shelf or in the shop.

MH Yes. Most of the sugar in the past years in Australia that has been labelled raw sugar comes from here, Moreton Mill.

GM Is that right?

MH Yes. When CSR were packing it, and we were packing it under the Bundaberg brand too. Not so now because it has changed a lot since then, and the CSR Company are doing it out of Mackay I believe.

GM So, I could have gone into the IGA supermarket, but my sugar would have gone from the Maroochy River flats, up to Nambour, crushed and processed, sent down to New Farm and then trucked back up to Coolum.

MH That’s right.

GM Now it can go from here. That was really value adding to the Mill?

MH Another aspect for the justification was transportation costs from Millaquin down to Brisbane. A lot more than justifications. It was during Tate and Lyle era that happened.

GM The owners. What do you think has been the worst season in your experience?

MH 1981 wasn’t a good one.

GM That was when the boiler collapsed?

MH Yes. 1973 – in the year I think it started with a cyclone. We were still here on December 27th or 28th crushing cane. It was a very wet year. All the cane was lodged and if you weren’t starting you were stopping, and if you weren’t stopping you were starting crushing. In 1999 was a bit similar too. It was a terrible year for wet weather too. I hope this year is not as bad, but it started off that way though.

GM We’ve had a very dry period, I mean for growing I suppose. Does that impact on the CCS?

MH To a degree it does as there are not many people irrigating this area, and it would have an impact on when there is maximum growth in the cane stalks. If it has late growth and it is still growing in winter then your sugar content is depressed. It still matures around September, October, when we get maximum sugar content in it, but then as it starts growing again its sugar content becomes depressed again.

GM How do you tell when sugar cane is mature – is it when they get that feather thing on the top?

MH When it gets the flower that indicates that it’s ready to harvest. That doesn’t happen every year. Some varieties are more susceptible to that. It is in certain terms, tonnage terms, when that happens it stops growing and if you leave it, the cane starts to side-shoot off the stalk and you get all sorts of problems in processing the cane. But if you can get it before it does that, you maximise your tonnage and maximise your CCS return on it. Usually cane here is on a 12-month growing cycle and if you cut it to the 12-month growing cycle you will be able to maximise your returns from that cane.

GM What have been the more memorable milestones for you personally at the Mill?

MH I saw that question and thought, what would have I done? I suppose to be where I am and what I am doing now. Someone says that to me, a question like that, I said, ‘Well, I’ve worked for five different owners and I’m still working at the same place and still haven’t got the sack so that’s survival’.

GM I guess you are in a fairly important position in the whole process here as Senior Chemist aren’t you?

MH So I’m told. If things go wrong I’m responsible.

GM I’m interested in this first-aid training course – how many people have you at the Mill – you wear a different coloured helmet, don’t you, for first-aid? A green helmet?

MH Yes. All the first-aid officers wear green helmets. Part of the company policy so they can see who the first-aid officer is amongst a bunch of guys and they can recognise that and grab you.

GM So how many do you reckon you’ve got here?

MH We have a few on the locos; there’s about half a dozen in the Mill. They are posted on various shifts and each shift has to have a first-aid trained person.

GM Does the Mill have it’s own fire-fighting capability?

MH The Mill is rigged up with fire mains and they do have training. They call it ‘the first five minutes training’ where annually they come and train the various people who are involved in that activity and how to use fire hoses and fire extinguishers and things like that. Mostly they rely on the local fire department.

GM Queensland Fire & Rescue.

MH That’s the ones.

GM Are there fixed monitors on any part of the Mill?

MH On our bagasse sheds and belts, electrical rooms and switch room and things like there is, I suppose you’d call them smoke detectors or fire detectors; there is an alarm system rigged through the factory, which alarms any of those areas.

GM What part of the environment gives you the most angst - is it air pollution?

MH Sometimes it’s the boiler when they put out black smoke. A lot of that is relative to the mud in the cane we get. It doesn’t burn as well and they have difficulty maintaining steam pressure and things like that, and you get black smoke. Also our effluent ponds, mostly the smell. Where they are situated is becoming more populated and people complain about the smell.

GM People are encroaching on it, aren’t they?

MH I don’t blame them. That’s a concern.

GM That’s mainly just rotting material?

MH Sugar. Basically it’s the BOD loading you put on it, through carbohydrates or whatever you send from down here, so we try to avoid that as much as possible. It all creates paperwork.

GM You mentioned here the ‘affination’. What’s all that about, the ‘affination process’?

MH At the moment it’s a boat anchor process. Trials were done in the ‘90s and it was called “Project Snow” and they were going to make this white sugar here in the factory, instead of producing mill-white sugar, using this and offer it as an alternative product to the Grade 1A white sugar you can buy in the shops that they produce at the refineries. It was called Super Raw and they had a syrup clarifier and some fugals and things like that. It never really got off the ground and produced what they really wanted to out of it. But we did use eventually part of the gear – the syrup clarifier - to produce what we call the Super Raw sugar here, which is 99.7998 purity sugar which is pretty good. But then we could only do it in very small quantities for the market we had and as I was told, back in those days, the sugar price war came along with the refined sugar and it just knocked the tail out of it.

GM As a first-aid training co-ordinator, how did you actually get into this first-aid? Was it thrust upon you, or just something you wanted to do?

MH I was interested in it, and it just sort of slid on top of me. A lot of things in sugar mills, if you show an interest in it, you’ve got the job. Annually we have to do training – CPR and things like that. I organise that, and also updating certificates and I make sure they are up-to-date. It is all part of the Workplace Health & Safety Act.

GM Do the guys who wear the green helmets get an incentive in their pay?

MH Some do, some don’t. I am not totally up with that.

GM I did work with Coca Cola Amatil, and if you had a First-Aid Certificate and advanced CPR you got an extra $3 a pay or something. It was just a little incentive.
When I read the history book I noticed there have been about three or four deaths over the years at the Mill through industrial accidents. Have there been any bad accidents during your time here?

MH Yes. Accidents can mean one way or another. We had a welder by the name of Neil O’Connor who fell off a platform and broke his back. He ended up in a wheel chair. The company re-employed him in the office here and he did that until he retired, as an office worker. That wasn’t a very good situation. Those sort of things give more impetus to the safety aspect of what we do here at Moreton Mill. You’ve got to be more vigilant on what we do and how we do things, our set-up and so on.

GM When I walked around, it’s a dangerous place – you’ve got great crushers and rollers, you’ve got high temperature, pressure, steam, fire, noise. There are a lot of things that can distract easily if you are not on your toes and watching what you are doing. No wonder there is that sign out the front – “No tours conducted at the Mill’. It must be nightmare – imagine trying to take a bunch of school kids through a mill.

MH Yes. We used to do it and it used to clog up everything. You couldn’t get around your walkways, for people and tourists. It’s nice for them to see a sugar mill, but there was that many of them over the years, it just got untenable.

GM If you could make money out of it, it’d be good, but you’d have to re-design your whole mill to accommodate it.
What will you do if the Moreton Mill closes – notice I said the word “if”? I am being very positive.

MH I don’t know at this point in time. They have offered me a redundancy. I’ll take it quietly for a month or so and look around and try and find something similar to what I do in the area maybe. I may have to bite the bullet and go elsewhere in the sugar industry, but that is becoming difficult because of the rationalisation in other plants.

GM You’ve been here for …?

MH Thirty-four years.

GM Almost 35 years, and you whole life has been sugar, hasn’t it?

MH That’s right.
GM I imagine it would be pretty hard, and of course in the environment, you are 50, it makes it pretty tough doesn’t it?

MH Yes it does. But you’ve got to try and be positive and take on board a different viewpoint in life and try something different I suppose. But what that is I don’t know yet.

GM Need to look up Situations Vacant for retired Senior Chemist (Sugar Mill).

MH It depends on what happens. Part of my job that I do here and didn’t mention before has been since the Chief Chemist left, has been more involved in employing people here. Seasonal people who come back, they come and see me and we write down details of employing new people, and I’ve often thought that these people coming through the door, they want a job and they’re desperate. I think to myself I’ll be doing that next year. You feel for them, and feel the change as the situation evolves. Maybe if I treat these people right, they’ll give me a reference somewhere.

GM What do you think is going to be the greatest loss if the Mill closes?

MH Well, the sense of community. The sugar community is pretty big. I know a lot of the people who have worked in the industry – the cane farmers, the mill workers. My father’s generation was made up of a great lot of these sugar farmers, the farms that exist now. They took them up just after the War and built them up to what they are now, and of course some of the sons and daughters have taken them over and so on and you’re going to lose all that. The family aspect will just be no longer in sugar. That community of people that you knew will just be gone.

GM Did you think it will have a big impact on Nambour town itself?

MH It’s only an opinion, but initially it will. But after a while it’ll pick up again. The development will pick it up and become probably a satellite of Brisbane. Most of us might end up serving ‘sangers’ or pulling beer or something for the tourists.

GM There’s no shortage of them. Is there anything else I haven’t talked about your role in the Mill and the history of the place?

MH We’ve got a lot of photos in our collection that you may be interested in having a look at if you can. They go back for quite a while.

GM Mark, thanks very time for your time – it’s been good.

MH Thank you. 

End of Interview